Leadership Behavior: Hammer & Scalpel

Leaders aren’t always effective and there’s a complex web of reasons that contribute to poor performance. One such reason is what’s in your arsenal of leadership styles. Your preferred, default style stems from what you think about and define as leadership, but knowing this is only a third of the battle. You also have to know what other leadership styles you can use and how to use them, as well as who your team is and to what styles they respond positively.

Our Theories on Leadership

Think of your favorite leader. It could be someone personal, someone you follow on social media, or it could even be someone who died a long time ago. That person says a lot about your implicit theory on how a leader should behave. To analyze that, you’re going to have to dig.

Apply the problem-solving Five Whys Technique by choosing a recurring habit in the way you lead (e.g. Meeting with your team every day) and ask yourself why you do that. Then follow up your answer by continuing to ask yourself why. After you’ve asked yourself why enough (think 5+ times), you’ll arrive with a much more emotionally cause. This is a foundational pillar in your implicit theory of effective leadership.

Let’s look at some leadership styles. Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, itemized and expounded on six styles of leadership:

Coercive leaders demand immediate compliance. Authoritative leaders mobilize people toward a vision. Affiliative leaders create emotional bonds and harmony. Democratic leaders build consensus through participation. Pacesetting leaders expect excellence and self-direction. And coaching leaders develop people for the future.”

These styles are further divided into their effect on the climate of the organization, either positive or negative. Coercive and pacesetting are negative, with the remaining four being positive.

When it comes to understanding the leadership style you choose, you have to know your implicit theories. Let’s say your habit is meeting with your team every day. In asking yourself why, you’ve boiled down the noise to an intense need for control that you’ve witnessed past managers use successfully. This leads you to use the authoritative style, ensuring everyone is on the right path towards the vision.

Ah, but one day, someone on your team tells you they just don’t feel like part of the team. Your “Come with me” approach isn’t working with them. You reach down into your magic bag of leadership styles and pull out…coaching? Maybe, maybe not. Picking a style at random is the same as changing styles for the sake of it; this is to say, you might as well be throwing a dart at the wall. If you don’t understand who is in front of you, you can master all six leadership styles and still fail.

Know Your Audience

Without knowing your team, you risk being seen as ineffective, with perceptions of you ranging from tyrannical king to court jester. While establishing a firmer grasp on your implicit theories, you have to invest time with your team, both as a group and individually. You are not going to enter a situation and immediately do the right thing all the time. Early on, you need to be talking to your team about what they know and what they expect.

Ask your team a lot of questions. Get to know their expertise level of the field you’re in, and further, understand your own level of expertise or lack thereof. You can’t very well stand up and say, “Let’s go!” if everyone in the room is smarter than you (and knows it). They’ll wonder what business you have steering the ship. Likewise, if half the team wants to provide input and the other half needs coaching, attempting to set a fast pace will likely leave people behind, feeling ignored or wanting to quit.

Matching a leadership style to a group or individual is as much about you as it is about them. As a leader, if you’re not part of the team, you’re not part of the team. There’s never going to be a happy medium when it comes to choosing your leadership style. If your team is made of people, that means they’re dynamic and evolve—sometimes over weeks, sometimes over years—and you too must evolve. Continued knowledge of and interpersonal relationships with your team keep your finger on the pulse of the organization.

The Hammer & Scalpel

Being a hammer sounds rather harsh, punitive almost, but it’s not always a bad thing. Anyone who has been a leader knows that team members don’t always do what they’re supposed to and can cause their share of problems among the whole team. Likewise, bad habits and cultures can spread like a virus through an organization. With these situations, sitting down with people one-on-one or holding a pep-rally for morale are not always realistic solutions.

Take Elon Musk. When he entered Tesla as an investor, he saw promise. As he grew more and more into the company, taking over operations, he eventually saw its future was being compromised by certain individuals who were stalling progress. He fired all of them, including one of Tesla’s founders.

This isn’t to say that being a hammer always involve firing people. It also involves showing the force needed to get the job done when you have a highly capable and motivated team of people with you. This type of team doesn’t need a lot of managing because they have the skill and drive to manage themselves. Here, the hammer is a standard. As previously stated, not knowing your team enough to take advantage of this (or using this style when it is ill-suited) would cause serious problems.

A scalpel is the balance to the hammer, and more often than not, is the better choice. Leadership, after all, is about being a guiding voice for others and strategically negotiating the best way forward.

For instance, problem employees can be coached, instead of fired, when the leader believes in their potential to grow. Further, problems between employees will also need a delicate hand to motivate separate parties to collaborate and compromise. It is when an employee refuses to work to the standards that the hammer is needed. In fact, a scalpel really provides a leader with a new set of options: mend, include, mobilize, and develop.

The men’s basketball team at Duke University is led by Coach Mike Krzyzewski, who embodies adaptive leadership styles. When a player needs direction and development, Coach K works with him to bring out that growth potential. When the game is on the line, he can equally stand tall and muster the self-confidence needed to show a clear direction. His nearly four-decade long successful career at Duke is evidence to the achievements that are possible using the scalpel.

 

A leader doesn’t always have the right answer and won’t always get things right. It’s the willingness to look deeper into yourself and learn what drives you that opens doors to options. Combine that with understanding your team and developing a relationship with each person on it. Then, at last, you can then look at what tools you have, what tools you need, and how best to use each one of them. If nothing else sells you on the need for different leadership styles – think about your reaction if your doctor pulled out a hammer to open your stomach for surgery.

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Philip Clark

Philip Clark is a former business consultant who currently writes about where leadership meets psychology. On occasion he mixes in education and social impact, aiming to improve the world one person at a time. Earning his degree in Psychology and an MBA from the College of William & Mary, he offers insight into looking past a standard checklist life by digging into what makes you tick and then improving it.